Growing up going to Catholic school, it never really occurred to me how odd it is that so many Christians show up at work or school on some seemingly random Wednesday with a dark smudge on their foreheads. The more I think about it the stranger it is. It can certainly remind us of our mortality (the whole “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” thing). It marks off a season of penance for that hard-partying during Mardi Gras the night before?
Ash Wednesday is a pretty enigmatic holiday for Christ-followers. Historically, it marks off the beginning of a Lent season, a lean period before Easter, which in itself is wrought with paradox. The word “Lent” comes from the word meaning “Spring.” This is a season of longer days, abundant flourishing, and a brilliant turn of seasonal weather. But it is also during this change that we’re asked to stop for a second and consider where we’ve come from, and who we are.
Perhaps its only by having a big, sloppy smudge placed right between our eyes that we are stopped from jumping into the feast of spring by observing a period of fasting and repentance. It is this forty day period of hesitation and evaluation that slows us down enough to see where we are, what we depend on most, who we are becoming, and where we are headed.
One of famed poet T.S. Eliot’s most renowned poems reflects on Ash Wednesday and Lent’s ability to do just this, letting him re-center himself. When he starts to till this ground, he turns up all sorts of mis-directions that require acknowledgement and repentance: from false hopes, to distorted love and vain wastes of time. Eliot’s prayer starts the Lenten season by entreating that God may “Teach us to care and not to care, Teach us to sit still;” that we may be reoriented in our wants and needs and freed from anxiety enough to be present to God.
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?
Because I do not hope to know
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is
Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgment not be too heavy upon us
Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still.
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.
[T.S. Eliot, Ash-Wednesday, 1930.]
Let us take this time to realize where our loves lie, where our time goes, who and what we are dependent on, and where we are headed.
Let us see the new creation of the springtime through the smudged realization of our own brokenness, mortality, and lack.
Let us follow Jesus through this season, to the cross and into the resurrected, free, and abundant life he made possible for us and gives to us.